There are many “hard passages” in the Bible. Sometimes they are difficult to understand. Other times they seem cruel and repulsive. But it’s important to study these texts and also to acknowledge these reactions. Ignoring them can be problematic in many ways. Sometimes skeptics will take advantage of the general unfamiliarity with these scriptures (since nobody puts them on bumper stickers) and then make attacks on the faith.
The best way to approach the Bible, including difficult passages, is to see them through the lens of our savior, Jesus Christ. Jesus re-interpreted the Old Testament laws radically (Matthew 5:21-48), and He also acknowledged that some passages were written because people have hard hearts (Matthew 19:8, Mark 10:5). What follows is a better understanding of scripture and application: Christian living is not a simple obedience to a bunch of commands – but a faithfulness of life rooted in love for God and love for those around us (including our enemies).
For a good example, we can begin with the Old Testament concept of “chērem”. This is sometimes spoken of as “the ban” against people-groups who were living in the Promised Land ahead of the Israelites. It involves both consecration and violent destruction. This is troubling in all its places – including in the book of Joshua. There it was incorporated into commands for the mass slaughter and destruction of the city of Jericho – including men, women, children, and animals (Joshua 6:17-19,21).
Some of this is mitigated by the offer of peace that was customarily made beforehand. The Israelites engaged in destruction only if it was first refused (Deuteronomy 20:10-18). But this is still a hard teaching; it invokes slavery even for those who accept the terms of peace. Slavery may have seemed like a better alternative at the time (as opposed to genocide), but today it’s completely unacceptable.
Some interpreters have focused on the part of consecration – emphasizing that it was meant to keep people from using warfare to get rich (Joshua 6:18-19). Others have noted that the references to chērem alternate with references to Rahab’s family being rescued (6:17b,22-23,25) – the emphasis being similar to that of Romans 10:13, which says “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
These are helpful insights, but I think it’s more important to look at how Jesus appropriated this kind of teaching. He was probably drawing from this concept of chērem in Deuteronomy 20 when He gave His instructions for His peace mission in Luke 10:1-12. It’s ironic that such a violent passage would be used for peace, but the similarities are easy to notice. Like the Israelites of old, Jesus’ followers were wandering into new and hostile territory. And similarly, their work began with an offer for peace. Note what He said in His instruction…
These are some insights that have helped me in understanding the Bible. I hope they’re helpful for you as well. The Bible is a book like no other. It can transform lives when it’s interpreted in the right way.
May God bless you,
Pastor Andrew McHenry
I am a husband, a Congregational pastor, and a native Kansan currently living in Thermalito, California. In the past I have also been a prison chaplain and a youth pastor. Interests include reading, railroads, prog rock, KU, and the KC Royals. Opinions are my own and are not necessarily those of organizations I have been with.